Buyers blast magazine lag

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Media buyers are pushing to shorten the time between publishers first reports of magazine-circulation figures and the audits that verify them, and their efforts are bound to get more attention following an egregious overstatement by Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's YM.

Circulation audits, as conducted by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, influence billions of dollars in advertising decisions and can determine how prominently magazines are displayed at newsstands, a key factor in consumer sales.

ABC's twice-a-year Fas-Fax reports of magazine circulation-a well-used barometer for media buyers of a title's strength-report publishers' numbers as submitted to the auditing company. At issue, though, are the audit reports ABC prepares to verify that data, which have sometimes appeared well over a year after the period in question. YM's most recent audit showed it overstated newsstand circulation in one reporting period by almost 200,000 copies.

"Ideally, we'd like to see [audits] dealt with in a timely fashion, so advertisers aren't looking a year back trying to figure out what they're owed," said Neil Ascher, Zenith Media's exec VP-director, communications services, and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Consumer Magazine Committee.

A quiet lobbying effort led by Mr. Ascher's committee resulted in a victory for media buyers at ABC's last board meeting in November. Should magazines not provide data to ABC to enable audits within one year after any statement's time period, they'll be omitted from the next Fas-Fax. This rule goes into effect with the release of the upcoming Fas-Fax, covering the last six months of 2002 and expected out in the first quarter-and resulted, in one insider's wry telling, of a scramble by many publishers to get ABC the data to avoid being delisted.

A letter sent last week from Mr. Ascher's committee suggested significantly shortening that timeframe by reducing time allowed for a publisher to collect on certain subscriptions from seven months to 90 days.

resistance likely

Further reductions, though, look likely to meet resistance. "A year's good enough," said Susan Allyn, consumer marketing director at Emap USA's FHM. Though she later conceded that nine months could be feasible, she added, "Does anyone come in and audit [media agencies] on everything they do in a year quick-like-a-bunny and everyone's happy?"

The next ABC board meeting is in March, and while its agenda remains undecided, it appears the media buyers' 90-day request won't be discussed by the board-though it's expected to be a hot topic of hallway conversation.

The audit report of YM's 2001 circulation found that for the second half of 2001 YM's newsstand circulation was not 594,000 as claimed, but rather 397,707-and that meant YM missed rate base (the guarantee to advertisers) in over half of its issues that year.

YM advertisers are currently in the situation to which Mr. Ascher refers. "The figures were inaccurate, and we take ownership and responsibility for that," said Laura McEwen, YM publisher. She said that conversations, and decisions on whether advertisers would receive make-goods or rebates, were in process with "almost [all] of our clients." YM's situation was first reported in Fairchild Publications' Women's Wear Daily.

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